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Reviews / Edinburgh Quartet: passion and intensity

The Edinburgh Quartet (Tijmen Huisingh, violin, at rear; Tom Hankey, violin, far right; Catharine Marwood, viola, 5th from left; Mark Bailey, cello, 3rd from left) with members of Shetland Community Orchestra, after their stunning performance at Mareel. Photo: James Mackenzie

I MUST confess I felt at a loss for words after this concert. I don’t think I have ever been quite so ‘blown away’ by a string quartet on stage, writes James Mackenzie following Wednesday night’s performance of the Edinburgh Quartet at Mareel.

Actually there were almost two concerts, as the quartet – or rather some of the programme’s music – was introduced half an hour earlier by Nigel Hayward, complete with piano-grande to illustrate his insights into the string quartets of Joseph Haydn and Leoš Janàček that were going to be played.

So that was a bonus, even before the main event. How fortunate we are that the Hayward family has enlivened these isles with “classical” music for over forty years – and continues to do so.

At the risk of repetition, I must say that to behold music being played live, before your eyes and ears, particularly in a fairly intimate setting such as is provided by the auditorium at Mareel, is so much more rewarding than listening to it in the sterile stereophonic confines of a living room – no matter how perfect the recording is deemed to be.

Having said that, the acoustics at Mareel are second to none, so the audio-visual experience can be astounding.

The passion and intensity, the sheer physical expression displayed by the players, as they deliver the most astounding combination of notes, is simply breathtaking.

The quartet’s concert began at 7.30 pm, and continued, with a fifteen minute interval, until shortly before 10 o’clock. I reckon at least as much energy had been expended by the group’s members in that time as by any football players in a 90-minute match, and had provided just as much excitement and enjoyment to their audience… As Nigel Hayward had said, the string quartet is “the ideal musical ensemble.”

What of the music itself? The programme began with Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 20 no. 5. This was, in the truest sense of the word, the most classical of the pieces, written in 1772.

But, we had been warned, this was no merely conventional composition. Haydn had entered into a 30-year stringent contract with the aristocratic Prince Esterhazy in his new palace, which was built in a vaporous bog, far from most of the required orchestra’s musicians’ homes in Vienna. At the same time the romanticism of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement was gathering pace. This quartet has been described, by Sir Donald Tovey, as “the most nearly tragic work [he] ever wrote.”

Nigel Hayward pointed out its structural and tonal innovations. For example, the final movement, a Fugue, has instead of the usual one theme, two: as he wryly commented: “A bit like a Tesco BOGOF.” Nor was Haydn averse to playing a joke – in the third, Adagio, movement, Nigel explained, the 1st violin goes quite “out of sync” with the rest of the ensemble.

Leoš Janàček (1854-1928), by all accounts, was an utter reprobate when it came to the opposite sex, and though married, drove his long-suffering wife at least once to an attempted suicide. In his sixties, he met (the also married) Kamila Stösslová, 25 years old. In his last eighteen months of life, Janàček wrote to her over 300 times. Hence the title of his String Quartet No. 2: Intimate Letters.

Nigel had prepared us for this quartet by confiding that for him it was “a new musical language.” In the opening movement, for example, there are eighteen changes in tempo. There is the use of an “Ostenato” (obstinate) theme, repeated.

The second movement, Janacek wrote, expressed the lovers’ first kiss. In this, you can hear, in high notes, “musical sighs”, Nigel demonstrated on the piano. And so there they were again, played exquisitely on the first violin. In this extraordinarily passionate piece, which was his last completed work, Janàček indeed “wears his heart on his sleeve”. In the following concert interval, everyone I met said how bowled over they were by what they’d just experienced.

Tom Harrold’s short Elegy opened the second half. This had been commissioned by the Edinburgh Quartet for its East South West North project, which – as far as I can understand from the publicity available on the Internet – serves to promote contemporary and earlier music throughout Scotland.

This piece, described by the composer as “one of [his] simplest pieces”, had the option of a backing string ensemble, ably provided by members of Shetland Community Orchestra. There was some predetermined choreography involved in the latter’s appearance – I’m not sure if this worked so well along with the spontaneity of the quartet’s performance. Nonetheless it was a pleasing piece, and it’s great that such an internationally acclaimed ensemble will engage with local amateur musicians.

The final piece was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 2 in F, Op. 22, written in the winter of 1873-4. The excellent programme notes, provided by Ron Butlin, describe the torture that the homosexual composer endured, even until his agonising death.

But this work is transcendent, an affirmation of life itself. Tchaikovsky himself declared to a friend that he “wrote that music with affection and delight.”

Sustained loud applause brought the quartet back on stage for an encore: a Bridal Song from the Danish island of Fanø; which amply demonstrated the group’s ability to capture and release traditional folk music.

I sincerely hope it will not be twenty years before the Edinburgh Quartet next returns to the north!

[Photo: The Edinburgh Quartet (Tristan Gurney, violin, at rear; Gordon Bragg, violin, far right; Fiona Winning, viola, 5th from left; Mark Bailey, cello, 3rd from left) with members of Shetland Community Orchestra, after their stunning performance at Mareel.]